The Startling Effect of Diet on the Brain

The Startling Effects of Diet on the Brain

More and more research is highlighting the strong connection between the gut and the brain. For many years we’ve heard of the damage that can be done to our bodies by high fat and high sugar diets. Now, there is startling evidence that the effects on our bodies are only part of the story, with diet also able to cause changes in the brain.

New research has found that a diet high in fat and sugar causes changes in the gut bacteria that seem to be related to a significant loss of cognitive flexibility, which is the power to adapt to change. The effect was strongest on a high sugar diet, which also impaired long and short-term memory.

The research was conducted on mice (because of their biological and physiological similarities to humans). After being fed different diets, they were given a variety of tests to explore the changes in their mental and physical function, as well as the changes in different types of gut bacteria.

After four weeks on a high fat or high sugar diet, there was a significant decline in the mental and physical function of the mice. One of the most profound changes was in cognitive flexibility.

Magnussen explained cognitive flexibility in this way, ‘Think about driving home on a route that’s very familiar to you, something you’re used to doing. Then one day that road is closed and you suddenly have to find a new way home.’

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Someone with a high level of cognitive flexibility would quickly adapt by finding another way home, and remembering to use that same route the next morning. Someone with diminished cognitive flexibility would struggle to adapt to the change, and would likely have a slow, stressful trip home.

The mice used in the study were younger ones, who would typically have a greater capacity to resist the impact of changes to their gut bacteria, or microbiota. In older humans or animals whose biological system might not be as healthy, the effect of high sugar and high fat on cognitive function might be even stronger.

‘It’s increasingly clear that our gut bacteria, or mictrobiota, can communicate with the human brain,’ reported Kathy Magnussen, a professor at Oregon State University.

 This study backs up an abundance of previous research that has demonstrated the influence of food on the brain, and gives us another good reason to taper down on fat and sugar.

5 Comments

Carol

This is such poignant information for my family. Thank you so much! I’ve learned a lot through your posts on your site “Hey Sigmund”. This is practical and applicable advice !

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Noelle

Very interesting … I’ve had an interest in holistic mental/physical health for some time. The theory of the gut as tied to other parts of a person’s health has really grabbed me.

However, I wonder about one part of this article: you mention that studies see high sugar and high fat as similarly destructive of overall health. I agree about sugar (that is, processed sugars). However, from what I’ve read, the common wariness about high fat comes from a faulty lumping-together of ALL kinds of fats into one category, rather than distinguishing different kinds. That is, there is a huge difference in the consumption of processed fats (typical of modern American diets) and the traditional consumption of unprocessed plant and animal fats. Take the French, for example, who seem to have a generous approach to natural fats and yet don’t suffer negative consequences from it. I’d love to see this research taking more of these sorts of distinctions into account, and see how it affects the outcomes.

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Anxiety will always tilt our focus to the risks, often at the expense of the very real rewards. It does this to keep us safe. We’re more likely to run into trouble if we miss the potential risks than if we miss the potential gains. 

This means that anxiety will swell just as much in reaction to a real life-threat, as it will to the things that might cause heartache (feels awful, but not life-threatening), but which will more likely come with great rewards. Wholehearted living means actively shifting our awareness to what we have to gain by taking a safe risk. 

Sometimes staying safe will be the exactly right thing to do, but sometimes we need to fight for that important or meaningful thing by hushing the noise of anxiety and moving bravely forward. 

When children or teens are on the edge of brave, but anxiety is pushing them back, ask, ‘But what would it be like if you could?’ ♥️

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Except I don’t do hungry me or tired me or intolerant me, as, you know … intolerably. Most of the time. Sometimes.
Growth doesn’t always announce itself in ways that feel safe or invited. Often, it can leave us exhausted and confused and with dirt in our pores from the fury of the battle. It is this way for all of us, our children too. 

The truth of it all is that we are all born with a profound and immense capacity to rise through challenges, changes and heartache. There is something else we are born with too, and it is the capacity to add softness, strength, and safety for each other when the movement towards growth feels too big. Not always by finding the answer, but by being it - just by being - safe, warm, vulnerable, real. As it turns out, sometimes, this is the richest source of growth for all of us.
When the world feel sunsettled, the ripple can reach the hearts, minds and spirits of kids and teens whether or not they are directly affected. As the important adult in the life of any child or teen, you have a profound capacity to give them what they need to steady their world again.

When their fears are really big, such as the death of a parent, being alone in the world, being separated from people they love, children might put this into something else. 

This can also happen because they can’t always articulate the fear. Emotional ‘experiences’ don’t lay in the brain as words, they lay down as images and sensory experiences. This is why smells and sounds can trigger anxiety, even if they aren’t connected to a scary experience. The ‘experiences’ also don’t need to be theirs. Hearing ‘about’ is enough.

The content of the fear might seem irrational but the feeling will be valid. Think of it as the feeling being the part that needs you. Their anxiety, sadness, anger (which happens to hold down other more vulnerable emotions) needs to be seen, held, contained and soothed, so they can feel safe again - and you have so much power to make that happen. 

‘I can see how worried you are. There are some big things happening in the world at the moment, but my darling, you are safe. I promise. You are so safe.’ 

If they have been through something big, the truth is that they have been through something frightening AND they are safe, ‘We’re going through some big things and it can be confusing and scary. We’ll get through this. It’s okay to feel scared or sad or angry. Whatever you feel is okay, and I’m here and I love you and we are safe. We can get through anything together.’
I love being a parent. I love it with every part of my being and more than I ever thought I could love anything. Honestly though, nothing has brought out my insecurities or vulnerabilities as much. This is so normal. Confusing, and normal. 

However many children we have, and whatever age they are, each child and each new stage will bring something new for us to learn. It will always be this way. Our children will each do life differently, and along the way we will need to adapt and bend ourselves around their path to light their way as best we can. But we won't do this perfectly, because we can't always know what mountains they'll need to climb, or what dragons they'll need to slay. We won't always know what they’ll need, and we won't always be able to give it. We don't need to. But we'll want to. Sometimes we’ll ache because of this and we’ll blame ourselves for not being ‘enough’. Sometimes we won't. This is the vulnerability that comes with parenting. 

We love them so much, and that never changes, but the way we feel about parenting might change a thousand times before breakfast. Parenting is tough. It's worth every second - every second - but it's tough. Great parents can feel everything, and sometimes it can turn from moment to moment - loving, furious, resentful, compassionate, gentle, tough, joyful, selfish, confused and wise - all of it. Great parents can feel all of it.

Because parenting is pure joy, but not always. We are strong, nurturing, selfless, loving, but not always. Parents aren't perfect. Love isn't perfect. And it was meant to be. We’re raising humans - real ones, with feelings, who don't need to be perfect, and wont  need others to be perfect. Humans who can be kind to others, and to themselves first. But they will learn this from us. Parenting is the role which needs us to be our most human, beautifully imperfect, flawed, vulnerable selves. Let's not judge ourselves for our shortcomings and the imperfections, and the necessary human-ness of us.❤️

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